Quirks and Quarks·Q&A

Canadian technological ingenuity and astronaut talent has been our ticket to space

New book tells the tale of Canada’s involvement in international space exploration, and how the Canadarm became 'Canada's space currency.'

New book discusses Canada’s underappreciated role in space exploration since the 1960s

We see a close up shot from below of David Saint-Jacques looking out a window at the Canadarm2 aboard the ISS.
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques looks out at the Canadarm2 during his 2019 mission on the International Space Station. (Canadian Space Agency/NASA)

This week saw one giant leap for commercial space exploration, as SpaceX's Dragon capsule arrived at the International Space Station with four astronauts onboard.

It's the first time a privately built, privately owned and operated rocket has delivered a full crew up to the station. It also restores to the U.S. the ability to transport crew to the station from American soil, which was lost when the Space Shuttles were retired in 2011. 

The moment the SpaceX Dragon crew entered the International Space Station. This crew of 7 will be working on the station for the next 6 months. (NASA)

This new launch capacity could be great news for Canada's ambitions in space, as it increases the potential to get our well-developed space technology into orbit and beyond.

Our contributions in space have often seemed small compared to our southern neighbour's, but Canadian technology actually plays a huge role — it just needs a lift to get there.

Canada was, after all, the third country to build an artificial satellite way back in 1962, though it was launched by the U.S. Since then, we've had a steady presence at the forefront of space exploration, with satellites, the robotic Canadarm on the space shuttle and space station, and our highly trained and specialized astronaut corps.

The perhaps unappreciated story of Canada's important role in space over the past decades is the subject of a new book by science and space writer Elizabeth Howell. 

Bob McDonald spoke with Howell about her new book Canadarm and Collaboration: How Canada's Astronauts and Space Robots Explore New Worlds. Here is part of their conversation.

In your book, you call the Canadarm 'Canada's space currency.' What did you mean by that? 

It comes from a phrase that Marc Garneau, our very first astronaut, told me many years ago. What he said to me was it was our ability to pay to play. So what we did was we paid with these amazing robotics, first with Canadarm, then with Canadarm2, then Dextre and then Canadarm3.

And through these contributions and the various jobs that engineers, robotics scientists, all of the folks working on the ground have done, we've been able to build a program where we contribute technology, and then Canadians get the chance to fly in space and also to fly experiments as a result of that. 

Photo of the robotic arm technology Canadarm2 and Dextre, taken by Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques during his mission on the International Space Station. (Canadian Space Agency)

Tell me about Canada's role in space before Canadarm. 

What I did for the book was focus on this neat antenna technology, which is called STEM. And what it did was it allowed antennas to unfurl in space, which is not that simple, because it's not a very forgiving environment. You need to make sure that whatever can unfurl is going to be resistant to cold, to a lot of heat, to radiation, to a whole lot of other challenges. 

And so we created this antenna. It flew on the very first Canadian satellite, Alouette, in 1962. And it really impressed NASA. It actually went to the moon. It was assisting with the Apollo astronauts there. And it's been used in many, many other satellites since. And so it was from the sort of unfurling antenna technology that we got the idea for Canadarm and then, of course, a lot of other applications after that. 

Cutaway view of the Alouette satellite showing its main components. When the Alouette-1 went into orbit in 1962, Canada became the third country in the world to have a satellite in space. (Communications Research Center Canada)

Why do you think it's important for Canada to even have a space program?

It's not just space agencies doing this anymore. We have a number of commercial companies that really have been involved since the beginning and even more coming on board. And what happens is when we start to invest in those technologies, we can push even harder into some of the specialities that help ordinary Canadians. And so already we have had a number of Canadian doctors fly into space and also Canadian medical experiments flying to space. 

If Canadians are then going to the moon, I think one of the best things that we could point to is all the engineering things, like compressors, generators, just even the ordinary components like solar panels. If we can get the working on the moon surface for a few months or years at a time, imagine the applications that could bring for power generation and Canada's north or other sort of remote communities. 

In a new book, Elizabeth Howell details Canada’s involvement in international space exploration from the 1960s to the present day. (ECW Press)

We're seeing more countries joining the space programs and we're seeing private companies now launching rockets into space. How do you think that will help the Canadian space program? 

I think that will help because now the burden of working in space is not just up to the government. The government has limited funds and it needs to be supporting all sorts of programs, and so attention gets scattered. In a commercial company, though, your mandate is to help your investors achieve a certain goal. The goal is financial at the end of the day, but it's always billed as some sort of technology or product or idea. And so that creates a consistency that will really, really help with governments. 

Do you think our role in space has peaked, or do you think we have more golden ages ahead of us? 

I think we have more golden ages ahead of us, but we have to think about space in a different way than before. It's now a multinational place, even more so than it was the 1990s. And it's also a place where you can operate in many different ways. You could be in the science and engineering fields. You could be in the commercial field, or you can even start to go into a side field and participate in ways that are more related to engagement. There's all these applications, but just probe a little bit further. There's usually something you can do. 

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz.